From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

A Joyful Noise

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness; come before his presence with singing.

Psalms 100:1

From the very first Sunday after my arrival at the Hanoi Hilton, I prayed in my own make-believe church in the tiny courtyard adjoining my cell. I had access to it through the back door of my room, and only when it was open (a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon).

When the guard I came to call “Stoneface” opened the door of my room, I walked around the enclosed area looking closely at the walls and finding inscriptions of dates going back to 1950. The most recent date was 1960. All the inscriptions on the wall were in Vietnamese, and I could barely make out the dates. How long had these others languished here? I could not see myself physically surviving long if my captors persisted in serving up the foul diet I’d been fed so far. God seemed my only hope.

Clutching a rusty nail found on the ground, I balanced on the edge of the topmost step outside the back door of my cell and reached up to a section of the wall immediately to my right. Laboriously, I scratched about a quarter of an inch through the tinted mortar until I reached the white base. Then I nicked at the wall, straining to keep my foothold as I drew the outline of a cross. After several hours, I stood down and looked up approvingly from the courtyard. The cross was a foot high and eight inches wide.

Over successive days, I busied myself scratching below the cross a statement of my presence: “Lt. j.g. Everett Alvarez Jr., United States Navy. Shot down 5 August 1964, arrived Hanoi 11 August 1964.”

Below this, beginning with Labor Day 1964, I scratched the names of every significant holiday as each arrived.

I now held my daily church services before my cross, which I pretended to be above the altar of the church I had attended as a child.

I had never been more in need of prayer. Not long after I created my “church,” my captors began a long series of interrogations. Things got tougher and tougher for me mentally. I was anguished and deeply afraid. Their taunts and threats wore me down to such a degree, I didn’t know how much longer I could hold out. Would they kill me? Would I disgrace myself and the country I held dear by breaking down?

One afternoon after I was allowed to return to my cell, I collapsed in despair. Praying fervently, I felt an extreme fear I had never experienced before—my agitation seemed overwhelming. Then, from out of nowhere, I felt my whole body relax and a calm come over me. My breathing slowed. Looking up through the bars to a small piece of the sky, I had the clear thought, Whatever they do to me, I’m ready. If I have to die, I’m ready to go.

To the same extent I had been afraid, I was now at peace. Deeply and utterly secure, I knew a comfort I drew from for the rest of my long stay as a POW.

Yet by necessity, this faith was a private affair. We prisoners were not allowed to worship together. As the years went by, we became skilled, whenever we were permitted to be together, at being very, very quiet if we even dared to pray together. It was many years before we reached a collective turning point in this matter.

In December 1970, almost four hundred POWs were brought together in the Hanoi Hilton. As they represented just about every known American captured in North Vietnam, we called the ring of buildings around our courtyard “Camp Unity.” The men in my cell named our twenty-five-by-thirty-foot room “Buckeye,” after our SRO (senior ranking officer), Air Force Captain Dick “Pop” Keirn, who was from Ohio.

Our room had two long slabs of solid concrete, each two feet high, facing each other along opposite walls. Between the slabs was walking space. Ten men slept on each row, unrolling their straw mats and bedding down beneath two blankets and mosquito nets tied to string stretched along the length of the room.

The American POWs all over North Vietnam had been consolidated in Hanoi after an elite force of American commandos made a daring rescue bid on Son Tay prison in November. The raiders had hoped to airlift POWs to safety. They were forced to go back empty handed, even though they had penetrated North Vietnamese air space undetected and fanned out in search of imprisoned compatriots. By sheer chance, the Vietnamese had transferred the Son Tay inmates to another camp a mere fifteen miles away only about a month before, leaving Son Tay abandoned. The luckless POWs at the new camp had actually witnessed the nocturnal raid, seeing the explosive flashes light up the dark sky and hearing the U.S. fighter cover scream right over their own nearby holding camp. There was little likelihood of a similar raid coming so soon after the abortive one, but the Vietnamese were taking no chances.

It would be much harder for the commandos to scoop us out of enemy territory if we were kept under lock and key in populous Hanoi. It had the best air defenses and none of the rural isolation of Son Tay.

Our swollen ranks in each of the large rooms of the adjacent buildings of Camp Unity did wonders for our spirits and our camaraderie. The unity and solidarity that we had risked so much to preserve seemed to have paid off. Far from being isolated and lonely, we were all caught up in the new euphoria. Among such numbers, it was impossible to feel the misery and sense of abandonment that came with solitary confinement or isolation.

Confidence in our present strength and ultimate fate peaked on Christmas night, 1970. Though the camp authorities had never relaxed the rule against POWs communicating between rooms and buildings, in our current mood, no one gave a damn about the regulation. Christmas gave us the impetus to act.

Suddenly the cold night air was filled with the sounds of a carol sung joyously and assertively by the men in one of the buildings. No sooner had they finished than the inmates of another building sang a different carol. Camp Unity soon resounded with the words and tunes of many a beloved carol, each time sung in a defiant fortissimo. Even though the wall in front of Buckeye prevented us from seeing the other buildings, we could hear our fellow carolers because none of the iron-barred windows had shutters.

The guards scurried to quash our insubordination. Appearing at the windows of each of the buildings, they shouted for silence and obedience. This only served to encourage even more POWs, who joined in singing “God Bless America” and the national anthem with such gusto that it became a challenge our captors could not ignore. Soon the riot squad appeared. Swiftly and forcefully, the Vietnamese hauled senior officers over to Heartbreak Hotel and clamped them in irons. Other guards stood by with fire hoses, ready to turn on the flow if we escalated the unruliness.

But they had no need for them. We had made our point. Then the camp commander appeared. “You are allowed to have church services,” he said, “but you must not be disruptive. You must do it in your own rooms. And the senior officers are responsible.”

Starting on the very next Sunday, the faithful in each room conducted services, praying and singing hymns together. With fear vanquished, and on the heels of such a significant victory, we no longer spoke in the hushed tones we had become accustomed to over the years. We had wrung this precious concession from our captors by proclaiming our faith, joyously, loudly and—most important— together.

Everett Alvarez Jr.

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